Tuesday, October 10, 2006

"Living the Prayer"

Deuteronomy 10:17-19
John 17:20-26

The room began to fill with the usual bustle, people moving to seats - they; pat a friend on the shoulder, exchange hushed greetings. Parents come looking flushed and distracted from Sunday morning primping of their children in tow. It’s a familiar scene in most of mainline church USA – except that on this Sunday there’s more variety to the gathering of worshipers. About half of those gathered are white middle class types like us – the others – mostly Korean – about half of them know little if any English. I look to my Korean colleague and wonder how this is going to go – he knows it will be just fine – he’s an old pro at this sort of bi-lingual thing. For me it will be the first since having been called as pastor of this mixed flock.
We stand together. He says the old familiar words of the liturgy in a far less familiar way – Korean. I wait until I am sure he is done before sharing the same words in English. Well, that didn’t go so badly I think to myself in temporary relief.
The organist hits the first few keys to an old familiar hymn – real old – something along the lines of What a Friend We Have in Jesus. Within a few more notes I am, in some wonderful way, transported to heaven itself as I hear the old, old words of faith sung in unison – two very different languages – woven together into one. I see faces filled with joy and passion – souls caught up in something beyond themselves – above themselves. We all seem to know that we have been taken to a new place – a place in the Kingdom of God - even if only for a moment.
Do you know that sort of experience – perhaps – hopefully - some time in worship when the liturgy or the music lifted you to a new and beautiful place? A place where you knew Christ was present – the Spirit was alive and flourishing – doing her thing - bringing life and wholeness and glimpses of the way our Creator has intended. Do you know that experience? In my case it came as I watched the confusion of Babel turned into the songs of heaven as people who come from such distant places unite heart to heart and voice to voice. I thought to myself – this is what heaven must be like – people coming from east and west sitting at one heavenly banquet – singing the same heaven bound songs.
It came time to preach. I had chosen to use as my text this High Priestly Prayer of Jesus – I realized as I stood in that pulpit on that particular Sunday morning I had no idea what that prayer was all about. Oh – I thought I did. The Spirit flew about the room and touched my heart – it felt like a burning coal, I wanted to say out loud with the prophet; Woe is me for I have seen the face of God. I tried to stay with my prepared text but that was useless – I was confronted with something new and real and I would never preach the sermon I prepared – not then and not now (although a seminary professor would probably have given me a passing grade for it) – in a matter of minutes it had become irrelevant – just ideas. Now – however – I caught a glimpse of what Jesus was really praying about.
This morning I am remembering that day long ago and realizing that it really is no more profound than what we have here this morning even if we all do speak the same language and come from about the same or at - least quite similar backgrounds. I look out among us and I see people who outside of these walls would not belong to one another – people who would never fit together socially. I mean let me ask you to split up a minute and have all of the Republicans go to my right and all the Democrats go to my left – Don’t actually do it – I’m kidding - please! I’d hate to start a church fight this morning. But imagine that in a world of such incredible polarization that we can actually be in community together. Look at the headlines of this week and how our two parties position and politic, taking advantage of missteps and misconduct and misfortune. All trying to make political hay over the indiscretions of a wayward congressman. Think of all the things that could divide and separate us? Even those of us who all come from basically the same culture and class.
The Belhar Confession tells us and the world – that as followers of Jesus we believe that this gift of unity is both a gift and an obligation.
Our unity – that which binds us together across culture and ideology and even preference is a gift of the Spirit. Left to ourselves I could never imagine that we would be able to rise beyond that which separates us. In South Africa the divisions between white and black was bound in the iron shackles of theology, and economics and longstanding cultural myths. Left on its own those shackles were unbreakable. The Holy Spirit would not rest – unsettled with such division the Spirit was restless and worked her way into the conscience of some who held power. One such man was Beyers Naude’. Beyers was the son and grandson of powerful leaders in the White Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa. Beyer’s father was one of the founders of the most powerful white supremacist groups in South Africa called the Broederbond. Rev. Naude joined his father’s group – a group which promoted violence in order to control the black population of their country until a day in March (21) 1960 when almost 100 children of color were murdered by police in the Township of Sharpsville for protesting pass laws. On that day Rev. Naude decided to relinquish his pastoral credentials with the White Dutch Reformed Church and to remove himself from the power and prestige he held with the Broederbond. He took up the cause of abolishing apartheid in South Africa. Over lunch one day he shared quite casually how dangerous his decision became – death threats and attempts upon his life became routine. He shared how he felt compelled to take a stand against all which separated people in his country. For him the gift of unity – which he lived to see until 2004. That gift came at a great cost. His life witnessed to what extent Christians must take responsibility for the gift of unity.
In Jesus’ prayer for his church he prays that we might be one. He prays that the love and the glory which he has shared with the Father might be shared with those who follow him. The church – that’s you and me - are in a unique place in things. We’re drawn to a special place in the world. We are by Christ’s love drawn into the love of our Creator and Jesus says – we are called to reflect God’s glory in the world. Now as one commentator puts it; this is no reason for triumphalism, but for sober wide-eyed mission. We are called to show Christ to the world. You see it’s not about us – it’s about Christ. What he is praying for is that the gift he gives to us at the cost of his own life is a gift given to share – that’s the heart of real mission. This mission must always have Christ as the reason and the center. It’s not about us nor about us growing or prospering as all sorts of denominational propaganda would have us think. To live out this prayer faithfully we will need to loose ourselves and keep our eye on the gift.
Jesus prays that we will be one – that’s part of the gift – but it’s never an end in itself. Contrary to how most of us feel most of the time about being united – its not given as a gift so we can feel good. As much as I felt the warmth and comfort of the Spirit in that bi-lingual worship service long ago what I have learned is that those feelings simply tell us we are on the right path – but the purpose of our visible unity as the body of Christ – our responsibility in tending the gift is – as Jesus prays; so that the world may know him – that the world might come to know this love which lies at the center of the universe.
We are not called to set aside all that divides us just so we might play nice. We are called to be one and to transcend the boundaries of race and class and petty differences so that Christ will be known to the world.
When I glimpsed a vision of the Kingdom of God that glorious Sabbath morning what I now know is that the Kingdom was not in the warm fuzzies of being nice to one another – that’s just a beautiful by product. The Kingdom of God is in the witness that we made to anyone who would care to notice. We were a place where others could see the power of the Gospel that those who by the world’s standards don’t belong together not only gather in one place – but make commitments – covenants to belong together beyond their differences.
As I look out into this gathering today – I am compelled to ask – are we committed to such a mission or will we allow our petty differences – our preferences – even our own ego needs and need for power to keep us from our mission – from tending the gift? We can understand the high stakes our South African brothers and sisters faced. Now we are left with the uneasy question – are we ready to tend the gift of unity – are we prepared to live the prayer?

HMD 10.8.06

Resistance and Hope, South African essays in honour of Beyers Naude’
Edited by Charles Villa-Vinencio and John W. De Gruchy
Wm. B. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids 1985


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